When you play a match at Gander Green Lane you feel the weight of recent history. The run that took Sutton United of the National League to the fifth round of the FA Cup, one which ended only in narrow defeat to Arsenal, is commemorated on the walls of the clubhouse. There are numerous photographs of Jamie Collins’s winning penalty against Leeds, of ecstatic pile-ons after the late replay victory over Wimbledon. There are pictures of manager Paul Doswell pointing on the touchline, there are very few of Wayne Shaw. It gets the goosebumps popping before you step on the pitch.
I know this because I played on Gander Green Lane’s hallowed 3G myself recently. And I’ve got the stats to prove it. Alongside a bunch of other hacks, pundits, podcasters and YouTubers, I was invited by sports data company Opta to play in an 11-a-side game in which they would record the statistics, just as they do for every Premier League match. Passes completed, interceptions made, shots on target, all would be noted down. The same also applied to those incomplete, unmade, and off target.
The offer was one I could not turn down. Not only am I vain and have an over-inflated sense of my own abilities, but I recognise that football is becoming a game where, like it or not, statistics and data are ever more important. This is true for professional clubs and players, but also for fans (and journalists). Opta have a desire to push statistics from the realm of the esoteric to the everyday; to get to the point where the average bloke in the pub is talking about Darren Fletcher’s pass completion rate. The match was an attempt to hasten this process, though to be fair, I don’t think the audience of invitees needed much persuading.
My team, the Opta Whites, were kitted out in a lovely classic Nike design. That was the only positive thing to say about an opening 45 minutes in which we conceded six goals. To make it worse the opening goal for our opponents the Opta Blues was scored by fellow Guardian writer Michael Cox, from the edge of the box, with the outside of his boot, as I was attempting to close him down. It was chastening.
At half-time we were asked if we wanted to see our stats. Such is their hypnotizing power we all said yes, even though we knew they would be awful. Our passing had been fine, but ineffectual. Otherwise there was nothing to note. Our opposite numbers, meanwhile, had had more shots inside the box than they had from outside. This was unusual, the statisticians observed.
I had spent the first half in central midfield and, in the safe space of the changing room, my team-mate Spencer Owen observed that that was where the problem lay. I was very much inclined to disagree. But Spencer is the handsome, blue-eyed captain of internet football sensations Hashtag United. He has half a million Twitter followers and there were two 10-year-old boys in the stands screaming his name. He was also by far our best player and it was soon agreed that we should reshape our midfield. We would change our formation from a very open 4-4-2, stick three in the middle, a target man up top, and go from there. I, meanwhile, would move from central midfield to centre-half. This came as a blow to my pride but also a blessing in disguise, as I was knackered.
The second half began well for Opta White. With Spencer now playing wide in a front three he was seeing a lot of the ball and getting a run on the full-back. In midfield we were more compact and Adam Hurrey, a guy who had been playing up front previously, looked a natural at the bottom of a three. I, meanwhile, felt comfortable in defence and made a sliding interception to stop a dangerous counter. I was sure that interceptions were a statistical category all of their own; it would look good in my profile.
We quickly got a goal back, a bullet header of an own-goal off a Spencer cross. Five minutes later Spencer was played in on the keeper, comedian Lloyd Langford, and brought down for a penalty. Spencer stepped up to take it, only for Langford to save rather impressively. I remembered Spencer’s words from half-time and smiled inwardly. But the referee had seen an infringement asked Spencer to retake the penalty and he scored. We were back in the game.
We continued to be back in the game until the final 10 minutes at which point the Opta Blues restored all their best players to the pitch (I may have forgotten to mention they had been withdrawn at half-time). They attacked us as if in a swarm. My hopes of claiming a second half clean sheet were scuppered by two late goals and the final score was 8-3.
I came off the pitch thinking I’d done OK, a six out of 10, in old stats-money. Sadly the numbers did not bear out that conceit. Of the 23 passes I made only 60% were completed (for comparison, an equivalent rate in the Premier League would put you in the bottom 25 of all players, roughly around the Christian Benteke mark). Of the seven duels I had contested, only three had been successful. I had had two shots, both inside the box, and they had gone wide. I had also received a yellow card.
I contest the veracity of some of these statistics. The second shot, for example, was saved and we can therefore never know if it might have gone in. My yellow card was a thing of beauty, taking out a particularly effective attacker who was about to get off a shot. Furthermore, my stats were not in context. I had played in two very different positions, which require different types of involvement. Any of the duels I had failed to win in the first half came when we were being absolutely overrun and I was chasing round three players at any given time. Oh, and there was the chasing too; the distance run, jogged or ambled was not covered in the stats pack. (Interestingly it’s something Opta don’t record, their model calculated purely on touches made by players).
Those were my excuses as I left Gander Green Lane and I’m sticking to them now. There was another observation that stuck in my head too; how the awareness of having your every touch recorded made this team sport so much more of an individual activity. “Yes, I got an assist” was a phrase I heard more than once, usually from an opponent jogging past me to the halfway line. This was a novelty for all of us playing of course, but it made me wonder whether the prospect of an extra positive digit might influence a professional, even in just the tiniest way, when it comes making their own decisions in a match.
In conclusion I must state for the record that, regardless of the circumstances, Spencer’s stats were very good. He had an individualistic approach but he made the difference for our team. I salute his endeavours and wish Hashtag United all the very best. As for me I was essentially humiliated on the pitch and my hamstrings ached for days. But I absolutely loved the experience, as much as a reminder of the pleasure of challenging yourself against a bunch of strangers as anything else. And there’s one other thing I’ll remember. Whatever the rest of the numbers might say, under the column marked “interceptions/successful interceptions” the data will always read “1/1”.